Michael Potts | 4/12/2020
An enlightening documentary that gets to the heart of the great fish market’s ordered chaos, Tsukiji Wonderland walks you through a place truly like no other.
The Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, which has since 2018 moved to a new location, is the world’s largest and has a rich history stretching back now over 80 years, with its roots stretching back centuries more. This documentary succeeds in its task of giving the viewer some insight into dense world of seafood as it passes through Tsukiji, with extensive interviews conducted with many of the workers and patrons who make their livings through it.
The majority of persons featured are the intermediate wholesalers, who act as a conduit between the seafood wholesalers and the end customers, mostly fishmongers and chefs. The intricate ecosystem of commerce and friendship which exists amongst the maze of stalls, auction rooms and laneways within the market is artfully captured, with ample usage of footage showing the intermediate wholesalers in action, generating a real sense of the camaraderie at play between them.
The documentary divides many of its sections by highlighting different types of seafood, such as tuna or conger eel, and follows that product from delivery to the fish market right through the restaurant kitchen, with a large number of Tokyo-based chefs featured in interviews throughout, explaining how they prepare a given fish and what the look for when they go to Tsukiji each day. The documentary goes further than just the food itself, however, by bringing into the spotlight almost everyone who makes the market function, from the managers all the way down to those making the ice to keep the fish fresh.
Such a fulsome picture of Tsukiji is held back only by its lack of any content regarding the fishermen and women who actually catch the seafood being sold, and their absence is conspicuous. That said, this could simply be explained by their lack of direct contact with the fish market and too great a focus elsewhere may well have harmed the overall production.
Moreover, not to be limited, Tsukiji Wonderland feature extensively an anthropologist, Theodore C Bestor, whose major career research focus has been the Tsukiji Fish Market. His inclusion makes for an all the more engrossing and analytical experience.
Lastly, Tsukiji Wonderland does not simply look at the past and present, but also addresses some of the future challenges faced by the market and the wider seafood industry in Japan, such as the rise of fast food and loss of knowledge as many intermediate wholesalers become older. This is a welcome feature of the documentary and adds nicely to the weight of the subject matter.
All in all, Tsukiji Wonderland is a highly enjoyable feature which does well to spur interest in an international landmark. As is put best by an interviewee, food critic Masahiro Yamamoto, in the opening minutes:
“It’s not that Tsukiji’s ‘the best’ in the world. There’s nothing in its league. It’s the only one.”